Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


  • Author(s): Denham, Woodrow
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-SA' version 3.0 license

McConnell (1930) first described and attempted to explain an “age spiral” in Australian Aboriginal systems of descent, marriage and kinship over eighty years ago. Since then, ethnographic and theoretical research concerning this matter has been sporadic and inconclusive, with societies that display this feature most often being treated as anomalous, transitional, hybrid or aberrant. Atkins (1981) attributed the failure to understand these societies to a lack of realism in the models; specifically to the widely accepted supposition that any ‘normal’ kinship system must entail an infinite or open series of successive genealogical generations each of which is both discrete and closed. Since that supposition can apply only to societies in which mean husband-wife age differences are zero or negligibly small, he suggested that the age spiral, reported in Australian Aboriginal societies where husband-wife age differences generally exceed 14 years, rests on a finite set of open generations rather than an infinite set of closed generations. His proposal means that the concept of generations as an infinite series of discrete, closed strata may not reflect a human universal, but rather may be an example of European ethnocentrism and over-simplification being interpreted mistakenly as self-evident scientific truth.

This paper compares models of Australian Aboriginal kinship based on traditional generational closure with models based on generational openness as embedded in age spirals or, more accurately, age biased helices. The objective is to salvage generational openness if it has any merit and to reject it if it does not. The research is based on my own and others’ fieldwork as well as archival research and comparative studies of Aboriginal societies in Central Australia, Cape York Peninsula, Arnhem Land and Western Australia. Analytical methods include formal mathematical models; mechanical, statistical and network models; and computer simulations. The approach is primarily nonverbal, demographic and quantitative rather than verbal and cognitive.

 The findings show that open and closed models entail radically different expectations about the structure and operation of Aboriginal societies in areas including but not limited to: genealogical frameworks, language group endogamy and exogamy, inbreeding coefficients, MBD vs. FZD marriage, prescriptive vs. proscriptive marriage rules, directed marriage cycles and classificatory kinship. In addition to comparing the strengths and weaknesses of open and closed models, the paper also evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of open models by themselves, in search of deficiencies that might justify their rejection. Several significant problems are introduced and discussed, but seem not to constitute fatal flaws.

The findings are likely to be of greater interest to scientists who are concerned with the survival of Aboriginal societies over the last 50 millennia and of lesser interest to those who focus exclusively on structures of systems of kin classification. The impact of these findings on the broad study of Dravidian and Dravidian-like kinship terminologies may be significant, but I am not qualified to investigate that issue and leave it to others. An extended and detailed analysis of relationships between openness and language group exogamy is in preparation.

Main Content
Current View